Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, one of my favorite pastimes was searching for gemstones in nearby creeks. I would use an old colander that had served its purpose in the kitchen and had been relegated to a second life as a rusty outdoor toy. I’d dig the strainer into the dirt and then I’d shake it methodically, watching the grains of sand fall.
I’d keep shaking until all that was left were the larger rocks—and that’s where I would find the treasures. A billion grains of sand were irrelevant, but the rubies, emeralds and sapphires, their colors and textures, held a much greater importance. While wet dirt quickly slipped between my fingers, the rocks were steadfast and strong.
That passing childhood memory floated through my mind recently as I considered the state of Christianity today. The church as a whole is being sifted. Each of us—as followers of Christ—is as well. And while being sifted hurts, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Individually, our faith is being tested on a daily basis, whether it’s the coronavirus, civil unrest, lawlessness, the proliferation and affirmation of sin, or the perpetual anger and hatred all around us. The Bible said this would happen as we near the end of this age. While I’m not saying that we are in the end times, ponder this passage from 2 Timothy and see if it seems familiar:
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
Doesn’t that sound like a ready-made description of our present world?
Now, consider each of those negative attributes as the interwoven wires of a sifter. Every day we are run through that straining process. It’s not easy. It can hurt and it can be scary. As with a soft clump of wet sand, the sifter may cause some to lose heart and break apart, falling through piece by piece until there’s nothing to differentiate one grain from the next.
That is an all-too-familiar tragedy. Someone knows the truth and has heard the Word, but they’re pulled under by the temptations and struggles of this present age. They turn their back on the hope of Jesus and find their security in momentary pleasure or gain. Rather than being transformed by the renewal of their mind, they are “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). They’re sifted out, and that’s an extremely dangerous place to be.
But for the believers who cling to God, who find refuge in our Rock and Fortress and Deliverer (Psalm 18:2), the strainer purifies. The sins of this world—so prevalent and celebrated in today’s society—can actually drive us closer to God rather than pulling us from Him if we flee from temptation, or if we go to our knees in repentance when we sin. By God’s grace at work in us, we come to hold ever more tightly to the eternal truths of the Bible.
The grains of worldliness slip away, leaving our convictions and faith stronger and more mature. Like the gemstones in my youth, the steadfastness and beauty come into focus as the mess dissipates.
The stakes of being sifted are exponentially higher for the church.
Pastors have the responsibility of shepherding their flock into a closer relationship with Christ through teaching and guiding. That’s an incredible calling. Tragically, some pastors lead their congregants down a path that ends in destruction by turning away from Scripture and crafting the Christian faith in their own image.
In recent weeks I’ve heard a pastor discuss hell as a figurative place, not literal. And I’ve learned of a nearby church—a longstanding Christian church—that no longer holds that Jesus is necessary for salvation. They are intentionally denying Christ’s words in John 14:6, where He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Romans 13:12-14 says, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Unfortunately, many churches and church leaders today enjoy making “provision for the flesh.” They’re more interested in tickling the ears of their listeners than they are in sharing the hard truths of Scripture. They’d rather be popular with the world than to be found faithful in Jesus. They want the love of God without the judgment and righteousness of God (both vitally important parts of the same equation).
They’re being sifted, and their flocks are being sifted with them. Sadly, they are falling away from the truth.
But conversely, I see a renewed passion for Scripture in many churches. The Word of God is being proclaimed victoriously and unapologetically. The Bible is being recognized as “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). Lost souls are finding the answer for their brokenness as they encounter the true and living God, Jesus Christ!
These churches are being sifted, too, but they aren’t falling away. They are firm and unmovable, because they cling to the “rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1).
The trajectory of our society is forcing all of us—laypeople and pastors alike—to truly question what and why we believe, and it’s requiring us to make a choice. Will we stand firm, even if it costs us everything? Will we be steadfast through mockery and hatred? Will we persevere to the end, holding tight to hear the words “Well done”?
My friends, you and I are being sifted. It’s painful. We watch as some around us fall away. But we know that, ultimately, we are called to faithfully follow our Savior, resolute in our dependence on Him. The world may turn away, but the hope of eternity awaits those of us who stand firm.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.